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Dementia: Active music making helps thinking and memory

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New research suggests making music actively may improve cognitive impairment. MesquitaFMS/Getty Images
  • Research suggests that music may be of benefit to older adults with cognitive impairment.
  • Existing studies encompass both listening to and active participation in music, which is the focus of a new study from the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), PA.
  • The new study is a meta-analysis of earlier research.

Previous research has suggested that music in general may be able to improve the quality of life of older adults with dementia.

A new study from Pitt seeks to identify the benefits of active participation in music versus passive participation, that is, listening to music. It is a meta-analysis of 21 previous studies involving 1,472 individuals.

The new study finds making music delivers a small but significant positive effect in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia.

The researchers also found that music improved quality of life and mood for the same people.

The study describes MCI as “a preclinical state between normal cognitive aging and Alzheimer’s disease” that affects 15% of older adults who do not have Alzheimer’s. Of these people, however, 38% will eventually develop it.

The study’s lead author, Jennie L. Dorris of Pitt, said:

“We are excited to see these results because participating in music, like singing in a choir or playing in a drum circle, is a safe, engaging activity that our research demonstrates can support cognition at a critical time for older adults facing cognitive decline.”

The research appears in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

A lack of standardization in previous research makes such a meta-analysis a challenge. The study notes that the presentation of musical activities varied considerably, having been delivered by music therapists, occupational therapists, and professional musicians across a range of musical experiences and proficiencies.

In addition, the activities themselves were diverse. For example, 17 studies involved singing or playing existing music, 10 dealt with musical improvisation, and six documented movement, dance, or both.

Similarly, the studies employed different tools for assessing cognition, mood, quality of life, and anxiety.

Medical News Today asked Dorris whether the analysis was able to identify a difference in the benefit people received from different forms of active participation.

Dorris said, “Based on this research, what we were able to find is that active music making, no matter the type, is helpful for general thinking and memory.”

“It will be exciting,” Dorris added, “to see future research continue to use the classification system to understand if there are specific cognitive benefits to activities like singing versus playing an instrument and how those benefits may support people with dementia.”

To assess the effect of music on cognitive functioning in the new study, the researchers focused on nine studies involving 495 participants. They found that active participation in music produced a small yet significant positive effect on cognitive function.

In terms of the impact music had on emotional well-being, the results were a bit more ambiguous.

Four of the six studies examining it found a positive effect. While the effect ranged in size among these studies, overall, the study reports, the benefit was not greater than that of physical exercise, although certainly the two activities are in no way mutually exclusive. One study found that listening to music produced a larger benefit than singing.

The results of the analysis of six studies concerned with music’s benefit for people with depression were “promising but uncertain.” Similarly, five studies measuring anxiety did not produce clear results.

Going forward, the authors of the study endorse further research drawing on a more widespread use of standardized reporting guidelines for music-based interventions, formulated by Dr. Sheri L. Robb of Indiana University in Indianapolis, IN. This is a research trend that has already begun.

Greater standardization may allow researchers to extract a more fine-grained understanding of the way different musical activities affect cognition.

For example, Dorris said: “Recreating music can have some improvisatory elements, and improvisation can take many forms based on format and skill level. It’s imperative for us as researchers to document activities with great detail so we can start to understand if there are differences in how these activities benefit the cognition of older adults with dementia.”

The study notes that, with dementia on the rise, it is increasingly important to design affordable and safe interventions that can help promote cognitive function and overall well-being in people with the condition. The authors write:

“Developing more interventions with these activities and offering these programs widely could potentially provide millions of people with critical support for their cognitive, emotional, and social well-being.”

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